Jeff Katz's picture

AIDS/LifeCycle: Inspiring Us All…One Mile At A Time

As the old adage goes, life is all about the journey, not the destination. It’s true that the people we meet and the places we visit quilt the fabric of our lives, but what we take away from these encounters and experiences is what truly shapes who we are and who we become. When it comes to AIDS/LifeCycle, nothing could be more true. Because at the end of the day, the distance we travel and the cities we visit over the seven-day bike ride become mostly insignificant—it’s the coming together of so many people for one purpose and the calling and commitment to something bigger than ourselves that make a life-lasting impression. And this is why we ride.

Though, literally, AIDS/LifeCycle may be a bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, what it stands for and represents is actually a much larger journey. To us, LifeCycle is uniting advocacy. Some 3,000 participants (not to mention thousands of additional donors) from so many diverse backgrounds and circumstances saddling up on bicycles to say that HIV and AIDS affect all of us—and more importantly, that it will take all of us to end the epidemic.

No one may have a greater understanding of this than Bob Katz, not just because he is a veteran of the ride (this year will mark Bob’s thirteenth year of participation), but more so because Bob has quite literally lived through every phase of the AIDS epidemic as we know it. He has seen more friends and loved ones die from this disease than he cares to number, and he’s felt more fear and sadness than any one of us could likely bear to take. But even more remarkably, Bob himself has been HIV positive since 1980.

“I’m part of that generation that was affected so intensely. For that reason I have very few friends my age, because so many of them died,” Bob says. “I’ve lost tons of friends. I’ve lost two partners. But to be fortunate enough to be one of those people who is not just alive but healthy after so much time, I think I might as well put that time to good use.”

And he certainly has. This year’s AIDS/LifeCycle will be Bob’s tenth (with three California AIDS Rides prior). Like so many you meet along the ride, Bob’s reasons for why he finally decided to get on a bike back in 1999—and more importantly, why he continues to do so today—are many and varied. But it was ultimately the polite prodding by a gym buddy that would prove most influential.  

“The proximate cause, I guess you could say, was that I had a friend back in the day, Donald-David Fehrenbach, that began riding in CAR 2 [California AIDS Ride] and helped form Positive Pedalers. And when he began riding, I began sponsoring him. And pretty early on he said I should do it, and he kept on me about it over the years, but I just didn’t think I was capable of it. Bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles? Are you nuts?!”
It’s a question every ALC rider is surely asked at least once…a week.

It was in the summer of ’98, though, that Bob would finally come around to the idea of participating in the ride. A bout of pneumonia and a later trip to the Gay Games in Amsterdam helped provide a little perspective. Seeing thousands of competitors unite around a cause, all in the spirit of pride, reminded Bob of that bike ride his friend had told him about some years earlier. And so Bob headed back to his home in San Francisco all but convinced that he was about to sign up for the ride of his life.

 

It was on his second training ride ever that Bob learned that his friend and ALC inspiration, Donald-David Fehrenbach, had passed away. “Those calls and messages, sadly, were all too familiar at that point,” Bob says. “But in this case, Donald-David passing away was yet one more reason to keep pushing.

“I always do a fair amount of crying, but there are a couple of points that always stick out for me,” Bob recalls. “My first year riding, when I got to the top of this long, curvy hill on day five, I just lost it. The grief of having lost so many people; still some lingering fear about myself. We all hit our point where all the walls come down and all the pain that there is comes to the surface, and that was mine.”

Those lingering fears regarding his own health can’t be glossed over, despite the fact that today Bob Katz is a healthy 61-year-old who rides upwards of a thousand miles a year up and down the state of California. Defying many medical odds, Bob has been positive for more than 30 years—since long before the disease ever had a name, let alone a treatment.

Bob’s infection can be traced back to December of 1980, in part because of his participation in the hepatitis B vaccine trials of ’78–’84. When mysterious and growing numbers of cases involving opportunistic infections among gay men began surfacing in the early ’80s, specimens drawn during that trial were then used to examine blood samples. Bob’s sample officially tested positive in 1985, though eventually back testing revealed that his first positive specimen was drawn on May 29, 1981.

Bob recounts his history with the disease with a sense of melancholy. There’s an obvious appreciation for his own life and the essentially miraculous journey of good health he has managed to stay on, but there’s also genuine sadness and possibly an even greater appreciation for those who are no longer here. Each friend, every single life that he knew was taken too soon by this disease, inspires Bob to get back on the bike every year. But much to his surprise, it is also the miracles he encounters on the road and the inspiration he finds in his fellow riders and roadies that push Bob up those hills again and again.

“The community really hooked me very early on. I can be as cynical as anyone, but there was a certain kind of spirit that really appealed to me. [And so that first year] I rode every mile. And then I signed up again and rode every mile. And then I signed up again and rode every mile,” he says with a big laugh. “I figured now that I’m a spokesperson of sorts for the disease, I have to keep riding.”  

One of the most wonderful aspects of LifeCycle is the mix of people that you meet over the course of the week. And a marked difference pointed out by veterans is the ever-growing breadth of participants the ride pulls in, from the youngest rider of 18 to last year’s oldest of 84. Both HIV positive and negative, gay and straight, Californians and New Yorkers, Germans and Brits. It’s a unique family, where you can meet a vet with deep roots like Bob alongside a first-time rider like Jeremy Lane and discover a beautiful commonality in their stories: Pushing oneself beyond physical and emotional limitations in the name of standing up for someone else.

In Jeremy’s case, it was only after he signed up for his first LifeCycle last fall that he learned just howclose to home the ride would hit. “When I registered, I was going through difficult times in my personal life, ending a long-term relationship and moving out of my home. So I decided to take on a life-altering challenge and hopefully have a great  experience during that time. But almost immediately that all changed,” Jeremy says. “Right after I signed up, a friend of mine thanked me for riding and in that moment told me he was HIV positive. This was one of my best friends but something I had not known before. And actually, that week, three different friends told me that they were positive.

“It’s hard to describe what that’s like, beyond obviously being very emotional, to have friends confide in me and then actually thank me,” he continues. “They gave me even more of a reason to ride and have continued to be a vital reason throughout training.”

And for a first-time rider like Jeremy, there were certainly plenty of physical challenges to overcome in training. Despite growing up on a bicycle, Jeremy notes that it had been a good decade since he had truly ridden a bike, so those initial rides of 30, 50 and eventually 100 miles were certainly intimidating. But just as Bob—and every rider before him—has said, it was the ALC family that immediately took Jeremy in and made him feel like no time had passed at all. 
 
“The thing that stands out for me is how incredible the AIDS/LifeCycle community is,” Jeremy says. “People were instantly supportive, and that’s people who did not know me at all. I immediately had support and friends. I’ve developed a tight group of friends, a group that inspires me. And the personal growth I’ve had; I’ve completed a double century [200 miles], riding my bike from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and back—that’s amazing to think I accomplished that!”

Equally impressive have been Jeremy’s fundraising efforts. While AIDS/LifeCycle sets a $3,000 fundraising minimum for each rider (with the funds benefitting the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation), Jeremy immediately set a much larger goal for himself: He wanted to raise $10,000 for his first ride. (At press time—with 29 days to go until the start of the ride—all signs point to Jeremy not only reaching but surpassing that ambitious amount.)

The donations—or rather where they’ve come from—have also made a significant impact on Jeremy, a fact made even more evident as he rattles off countless examples of the kindness of strangers who were more than happy to pull out some cash upon learning about the ride. From a fellow shopper at Whole Foods to Mardi Gras revelers in West Hollywood, people’s willingness to open their hearts (and wallets) showed Jeremy just 
how strong of a connection we all have to HIV/AIDS.

“I’ve never been on this side of it. I had always been the person who donated to someone else’s cause. Let them do the challenge,” he says with a laugh. “But getting on my bike and having this experience has provided a whole different feeling toward and insight about the cause and the community. This experience is truly life changing. It has taken over my weekends, my thoughts, my time. But I gladly accept that and, in a weird way, don’t want it to end.”

It’s a sentiment that even a vet like Bob echoes almost word for word. Recounting one of his more memorable experiences in 13 years of riding, Bob shares a feeling that came over him while riding through Malibu on the last day of AIDS/LifeCycle 4, where despite the physical exhaustion built up over the previous six days and 500-plus miles, in that moment all he wanted to do was keep riding. Simply put, he says he just wanted to hold on to the joy of AIDS/LifeCycle for one more day.  

“I have to admit that there are times where I’ve signed up for the following year’s ride and then thought, ‘Why in the hell did I do that?! Again?! Am I nuts?’” he says with a laugh. “But it passes. And then we start all over again.”

Instinct is the proud media sponsor of this year’s AIDS/LifeCycle—and we want you to experience this historic event with us! Visit instinctmagazine.com and Instinct’s Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/instinctMagazine) and Twitter (@instinctmag) for exclusive stories, pictures and more live from the road June 3–9.

Photos by Stephen Busken; last photo by Steven Rood